Need-to-know

May 06,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

In the walk-up line yesterday afternoon a mom and I talked about how we thought our kids had fared (they both don't test well) on the EOGs earlier that day. We were hopeful, nervous, sympathetic. The topic of the potential re-testing came up and she told me her son was most nervous about the possibility of having to take the tests over again, in a matter of days. "How did he find out about the re-tests?" I asked her. We certainly made sure not to make any mention of this to L. There's nothing worse than going into a series of tests, worrying already about whether or not you'll have to take them all over again. She didn't know. Maybe some parents spilled the beans, or a teacher, or some other kids with older siblings. That type of information, we agreed, should be doled out on a strictly need-to-know basis. This made me think about all the other things we have shared with our kids on a need-to-know basis, and about how parents must so often tow a fine line between sharing too much information, and keeping their children informed and responsible participants in the world around them. Sometimes, though, the decision is taken right out of our hands. A little over two years ago, when a gunman opened fire on the Virginia Tech campus, I was livid with L.'s school for assigning a "Wear the VA Tech Colors Day" only two days after the massacre happened. I wasn't angry that people wanted to commemorate the victims of that terrible and tragic day, but I was upset that they had brought this incident into the school, forcing all the parents to have a conversation with their child about something frightening and ugly, regardless of whether they felt it was information to be shared on a need-to-know basis (L. was in first grade at that point--much too young, we thought, to have to think about that event). We don't try and keep our kids sheltered in a bubble, but there is much about the world we live in that kids simply don't need to be exposed to before they are ready, or before sad circumstances force us to confront these issues. Giving our children information about big things, like grown-up decisions, or life and death matters, or details on the direct causes of someone's death, are all situations we must weigh individually along with our children's emotional and intellectual maturity levels. We talked about the Swine Flu with the kids, but only as a way of stressing the importance of hygiene. That people have died of the flu? Definitely NOT something a child needs to know--unless they ask directly. We have always pulled out all the stops, though, when talking to the kids about stranger danger, or poisons, or other household hazards. We have always erred on the side of believing that a healthy dose of fear and apprehension over these things will help keep the kids safer. And in a matter of years, I'm sure, we'll be evaluating how much of this talk (a need-to-know can of worms, if ever there was one) we'll be having with the kids. In an ideal world we parents would always control the information our small children are exposed to on a need-to-know basis. However, this hardly ever happens. As soon as our kids set foot in a school, or watch a television show, or overhear a conversation, the potential is there for being forced into conversations you weren't ready to have-yet (are we EVER ready?). Still, we will struggle to protect our kids from the world's ugly parts for as long as we can--and we'll be sure to always celebrate the beautiful parts, too. As the kids grow older I suspect there will be more and more out there that they will need-to-know, whether or not we think they're ready to. What kinds of things do you share with your kids on a need-to-know basis?